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January 9, 2014
8,000 comments later, most of them racist screeds too low and disgusting for even the bathroom wall at a Neo-Nazi meeting, CNN has finally decided to close the discussion on its story about a half-naked black toddler, who encouraged by its parents and other adults, curses, poses, and acts like a "ghetto thug".
My politics are direct and transparent.
I am very traditional in my concern for and commitment to the politics of black respectability. I have repeatedly argued that a decline in the public norms around shame have been a net negative for American society. Based on those priors, the video (taken by law enforcement agents as a warning to the ghetto underclass) of a black child acting like an adult street pirate--learned behavior that signals something profoundly wrong about the child's home environment--is abuse, as well as grounds for the parents to be put in jail and the minor to be handed over to the state.
The late Richard Iton wrote a genius book called In Search of the Black Fantastic.
There he worked through how the Black Public Sphere and black private spaces were challenged and compromised by technology such as the Internet, and a spectacular public gaze that is simultaneously obsessed with African-American culture, yet still hostile to full and human representations of black humanity, and serves as a tool of the surveillance state.
Iton also details how black Americans and other members of the diaspora have found ways to use new media and other technologies in ways that can be simultaneously both liberating and regressive in how they are located relative to the new post colonial Jim and Jane Crow racial order, globalization, and neoliberal politics.
CNN's choice to give a platform to a video of a black toddler performing in a veritable human zoo and freak show is located solidly within Iton's framework. The speed and rapidity of how the Internet circulates an ostensibly private moment is a challenge for old models of communication and privacy. However, the thuggish black performance displayed by the black child in CNN's story is also a callback to old racist stereotypes and caricatures of African-Americans that served to legitimate chattel slavery and American Apartheid.
As such, the "ghetto" "thug" toddler in the CNN video (as taken by the Omaha Police Officers Association) is a 21st century version of the white racist caricature known as "the picaninny".
The picaninny is one of the standard characters in the white racist imagination and American popular culture. Depicted as a black child, he or she was shown in sexual ways, often as bait for alligators, neglected by absent and irresponsible African-American parents (this served as a way of indicting the black community and its families), in various states of undress, and acting like an adult who partakes in all manner of mischief.
The default question here is a simple one: was CNN "racist" to provide a space for such a derogatory and viciously ugly depiction of black Americans? That is too easy a prompt. "Racism chasing" provides empty calories and is of limited use or service to the Black Freedom Struggle in the post civil rights era. While identifying a given social act or institution's relationship to white supremacy is important, we should ask the bigger and more salient question: "what is this an example of?"
The adultification of a black child by irresponsible parents, and CNN's choice to offer a human zoo featuring a black picaninny for its viewers' and readers' entertainment (operating under the guise of concern and shock) legitimates the prison industrial complex, punitive policing, and a belief that black people are irresponsible, lazy, hyper-libidinous, immoral, criminal, and lack impulse control.
Popular culture does political work. CNN's story about a ghetto thug toddler exists in a broader constellation of images, TV shows, films, and music that highlight black hooliganism and violence. Reality TV is a prime offender, where shows such as The First 48 and Cops are nothing more than advertisements and endorsements for the mass incarceration of black Americans that do their political work by misrepresenting the racial dynamics of crime in order to scare its white viewers.
Racism can be active or passive, conscious or subconscious, personal or structural, intentional or accidental. As a lived social practice, racism also dissolves those easy binaries.
A producer or programmer at CNN made a choice to air a video of a 21st century black picaninny. This producer or programmer of that segment could have made a different choice. For example, he or she could have found any number of examples of white parents and their children acting badly. Whiteness is normalized. White children are a protected class. Thus, such an equivalent depiction would be in "bad taste". In comparison, black deviancy and bad behavior are expected and normalized.
Thus, and if we are to understand how racism and racial ideologies are reproduced in "post racial" America, perhaps the question should be the following one.
Why did CNN make the choice to air a video of a black human zoo when they could have easily made a different decision?
If we are seeking a more easy rubric or decision-rule for determining if a choice or act is "racist" or not, then we can always default to how a given public responds, in this case, to a given example.
When a story about a black child attracts 8,000 comments from overt white racists, who are attracted to a depiction of a black child that is directly out of their racially pathological minds, then yes, CNN's decision to post a video of a black picaninny in a veritable human zoo--and to not close the comments or pull the story--was probably in fact "racist".